Secondary School

Another excerpt from this year’s NaNoWriMo – Enjoy!

I’m sitting here, trying to remember the most significant memories from my time at secondary school – and struggling somewhat. It’s all become so fragmented – it feels like a collection of snapshots, stored away inside my head. The strange thing about memories is that they unlock each other – one recollection leads to another, and another.

Perhaps I can use the trail of breadcrumbs to my advantage – if I start with the first day at secondary school, hopefully the rest unfold somewhat naturally.

My first teacher at secondary school was called “Mr Way” – Martin Way. He was the prototypical history teacher – with a comb-over, a bushy beard, and a huge array of thick knitted tops that made him look like he might have just stepped from a north sea trawler. He was a wonderful artist, local historian, and perhaps the most knowledgeable teacher I’ve ever known. He didn’t so much teach history, as bring it to life – I remember a scratch-built Roman helmet and shield in the corner of his tutor room throughout the years he taught me.

Perhaps the biggest change with moving to secondary school was walking between different classrooms for different subjects. While we started each week with Mr Way, our typical school-day took us from class-room to class-room throughout the day. A single lesson was about 35 minutes, and a double obviously double that. There was a morning break after the first two classes, a further two before lunch, and a another three afterwards.

I remember the first morning, sitting in Mr Way’s classroom – and him handing out exercise books for every subject. We were to write our own name, and class at the top right corner of every book cover – on lines measured 1 centimeter from the top of the book, and from each other. Guess who wrote his name on the left side of every book before realising his mistake?

I remember using a fountain pen for the first time at secondary school. You were allowed to use either roller-balls, or fountain pens – no ballpoint pens. Of course the novelty factor meant that everybody had fountain pens for the first few weeks, and made a huge mess with them too. I dare not guess how many children ended up with ink stains in the lining of their blazers.

Oh yes – school uniforms! All secondary schools that I have ever known in the UK require a school uniform. I think uniforms were instituted to remove the entire question of means, or background – if everybody wears the same clothes, nobody can use their clothes to differentiate, or divide. Of course the uniform also meant that children could be identified and associated with the school while outside of school. We were reminded of this on a regular basis. In the first three years of secondary school everybody wore a dark blue tie with white stripes. Beyond that, a red stripe was added to the white stripe. The only time I can ever remember the ties being checked was in the queue for the school canteen.

The school hall doubled as the canteen, with vast kitchens being hidden behind huge rolling blinds. At lunchtime, children buying lunch from the canteen queued along the corridor towards the hall, in year order – unless you were third year or above, in which case you could could go to the front of the queue. I seem to remember fifth years could jump the queue entirely.

At morning break-time the canteen sold crisps, drinks, fruit, chocolate bars, and an endless supply of chocolate cornflake balls. At lunchtime things were much more healthy – with curries, vegetables, chips, lasagne, or anything else that could be baked in a huge tray, to be honest. I think I probably lived on baked potatoes with beans for quite some time.

The tables in the hall were arranged into rows, with bench seats on either side – the same bench seats used in the morning for assemblies in the hall. Each class took it in turns to both set out, and put away the chairs and tables. Each table sat about ten people at a push – eight if you wanted any elbow room.

I remember the first time I visited the canteen – and meeting up with my older brother. I put all manner of things on my tray, with no regard for how much money it might cost – at primary school the food had been free. Luckily I had enough money, and have no clue what I would have done if I had not.

I remember a girl sitting next to my brother smiling, raising an eyebrow, and winking at me – obviously put up to it by him. I pulled an apparently hilarious face, judging by the immediate laughter, and disappeared inside myself for the rest of lunchtime, my face burning.

As the years passed by, I rarely bothered with lunch from the canteen – instead either taking my own sandwiches in, or walking to the local petrol station with friends to buy chocolate bars instead. Not exactly a wonderful diet – but I’m sure children still do it now if given the opportunity.

I remember following a few older boys – friends of my brother – into town one lunchtime, and being amazed that they went to the local chip shop. One of them went to the supermarket and bought a pint of milk – and drank it straight from the carton. In my little world this was rock-star behaviour.

Some of the secondary school teachers are burned into my memory far more clearly than others.

My first French teacher was called Mrs Wilson. She lived in a flat above the chemist in town, and was perhaps in her mid to late 20s with shoulder-length dark blonde hair, and a wardrobe of clothes that screamed sensible. In our first French lesson we had to pick French names for ourselves from a hat – I picked “Michel”, which caused the entire class to burst into laughter. This was years before I discovered Jean Michel Jarre. I retreated inside myself for that entire first lesson. I was terrible at languages – I still am. I think the only phrases I still recall involve pencil cases, ice creams, monkeys, gineau pigs, and trees. Not exactly conversational.

The English teacher was called Mrs Crossland – the mother of a girl I had gone all the way through infant and junior school with. Looking back, she was a wonderful teacher who fought valliantly to make us interested in both reading and writing – unfortunately at 11 years old I was just a bit too disinterested in anything that didn’t involve either computers or lego to care very much. She was slim, always smart, and had a piercing gaze that was impossible to avoid if you were messing around.

I remember once attempting to perform a huge chunk of a Shakespeare play with a group in class, and taking note that the previous group had been too static. During our turn, I tried to walk around a bit while reciting my lines (very badly, it should be added – I had the memory of a goldfish) – and was asked after we finished if I needed to go to the bathroom.

My first math teacher was called Mr Fitchew. A tall retired Royal Air Force pilot with grey hair, and a seemingly endless supply of shirt and cardigan sets. I bet they were Christmas presents from his family. He was always immaculately presented, with a booming voice, and a wicked sense of humor. I’ll never forget the afternoon – towards the end of my time at school – when one of the girls asked him (during an aside about his career in the RAF) if he had ever crashed.

“Yes – I actually survived several crashes”

“Did you have to ejaculate out of the window?”

We all knew what she meant to say, but the explosion of laughter around the room, and the grin on his face will be etched into my memory until I die. Of course – knowing what I now know about sixteen year old girls, the entire conversation could have been expertly steered towards the joke.

The music teacher was a large lady called Mrs Hawker who wore huge flowing dresses, had a mass of curly hair, wore huge glasses, and somehow controlled an uncontrollable rabble armed with noise making devices (read: musical instruments). I remember in the first few music lessons being asked to sing “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, to see if each of us could hold a tune – and being pants-wettingly terrified. Thankfully, after a childhood messing around on the upright piano at my grandparents house, and on my parents musical keyboards, I could “play a bit” – certainly enough to impress a few people in the music class.

A lasting memory of music were the once-monthly “record lessons” – where we were allowed to bring a pop record in, a track played to the class from each record of the teacher’s choosing, followed by questions about it. I can still remember David Langstaff bringing the gatefold “Thriller” album in, and the teacher dropping it – scratching it in the process. We all cringed as she picked it up – we could all see the scratch.

I grew to like Mrs Hawker. I carried on with music as an exam subject, even though I was a bit hopeless at it. I never did learn to sight read music, and never played with any of the school bands that formed among friends. I got continual requests to be a keyboard player, but I think that had more to do with them wanting to borrow stuff off my parents, than wanting me in the band.

The science teachers were an odd bunch. Mr White was perhaps the most strict – a tall, imposing man who always wore a suit and a lab-coat. He taught chemistry, and most people thought he was insane. He wove the most ridiculous stories (that we all believed) in order to teach the most boring parts of the subject – and had a particular talent for calling people by their names backwards.

You always had the sense that you shouldn’t cross Mr White – and this was proven when a boy from another class was brought to him to be disciplined one day – he quietly excused himself, and walked to an adjacent classroom, across the corridor. We could see him through two sets of windows, and the corridor – inches from the boy’s face, screaming at the top of his voice. I remember the boy’s face becoming slowly more purple, and tears trickling down his cheeks.

Mr Lloyd also taught chemistry, and had a somewhat spectacular record at setting up experiments that failed. I remember an entire lesson being wasted while he attempted to make hydrogen pop from a test-tube – finally explaining what should have happened. That happened a lot.

My first biology lessons were taught by a Welsh teacher called Mr Davies, who never bothered learning anybody’s names. Everybody was Jack, Jill, Flossy, or some other ridiculous 1950s Enid Blyton name. The strange thing was that we all knew when he was referring to us, even though he didn’t use our name. I remember being chosen to demonstrate the method of preparing a sample in agar jelly, in a petri-dish, and shaking so violently with nerves that one of the girls whispered “why is he shaking so much?” – Mr Davies immediately asked if she would like to also demonstrate, which caused her to almost climb inside her own shoes.

I don’t remember Mr Davies teaching us sex education, but I suppose he must have. It usually fell on the biology teacher. I remember it all being very serious, and the books being full of diagrams, and cut-away drawings of internal organs – not exactly the naughty pictures we had imagined it might involve.

We had two male PE teachers. I’m not entirely sure why. The first was a slight guy with a speech impediment – and I can’t remember his name at all. The other was a boisterous, loud, thick set guy that played rugby each weekend called Mr Clarke. Of course we learned to play rugby. Rugby was one of the few field sports I was any good at – mostly because I did as I was told. Unlike the more talented kids that ran sideways across the pitch (like the wind I might add), I would charge forward with the ball, crashing straight into the people ahead, setting up for a hand-off behind me – with echos of “Well done that man!” behind me.

The female PE teachers were gazed at from a distance. By all the boys. I remember one in particular – Miss Foot (later Mrs Clarke) taking part in sports day one year – running in a 100 metre relay against the fifth years (the seniors). It’s the first time I had seen anybody that could really run like she could – the entire field fell silent, with whispers of “Jesus” as she ran 100 metres in about 11 seconds – pulling back a 30 metre lead given away by teachers on previous legs.

Ever since I was little, I had been obsessed with drawing things – so it was no surprise at all that I was good at art. The art teacher from the second year on was called Miss Ritson, and was probably more artist, and less teacher. I thought the world of her. She was perhaps in her mid 30s by the time she taught me, and dressed in that way that art teachers so often do – with flowing shirts, jeans, and scarves.

Art was one of the few subjects I was naturally good at – it probably still is. Even all these years later, if ever cornered into drawing anything for anybody, they wonder why I didn’t take up a career in art or design. I guess I just lost interest in it at some point. Although I went on to do art at college, I wonder if the first seeds of destruction were sewn by the popular girls in the art-class muttering behind my back when my work turned out better than theirs.

I remember one day we had to draw an old boot – a still life. At the end of the lesson the various drawings were pinned up to talk about – I think we had only been allowed to use line – no shading. One of the girls pointed at mine:

“Oh my god – look at that one – who drew that!”

“Oh. It was him.”

There was a tone. A tone I’ve still not forgotten, thirty-something years later.

I took history as an exam subject, and remember the first lesson with the “proper” history teacher – a bald man with white hair around his collar called “Mr McCollugh”. The children called him “Dungeon Master” behind his back. He talked at length about sporting events that had happened over the summer, about movies that had come out, about the various news stories in the paper recently. We thought we were getting away with doing nothing for the entire lesson – then as the bell rang, he stood up, and asked us all.

“What have we been talking about today?”

There was a murmuring around the room.

“History. We have been talking about history.”

He smiled, and we all stared at him. Some of us got it, some didn’t care, and some still had no clue. You can’t win them all, I suppose.

I remember a wonderful female teacher called Mrs Porter, that taught history, sociology, and various other subjects that commonly got wrapped up as “social studies”. One day – while starting a new topic about prejudice, and persecution – she asked us what we thought about Jews. Bit by bit, the children in the class volunteered more and more things they had been told, or learned from others – that they had big noses – black hair – wore waistcoats – just about every stereotypical prejudicial trait you might ever think of. After filling the board with everything volunteered, she looked at us all, without a hint of hurt, or reaction.

“I’m a Jew”.

That moment has stayed with me. I can remember the silence that followed, and the ring-leaders that had volunteered so many things wanting the ground to open up beneath them.

When I started at the school, the headmaster was a tall, gangly old man called Kenneth Mumford. He had an impressive moustache, and perhaps the most creased face I have ever seen. He told endless stories about visiting India to meet Mother Teresa, and banged on about bible stories whenever he lead assemblies. My only real experience of him was while queueing for PE one day – one of the boys in my class sprayed another boy in the face with deodorant – and Mr Mumford saw it happen. He immediately threatened the perpetrator with the cain (which we all thought had been banned several years previously).

Mr Mumford eventually retired, and was replaced by a very young headmaster called Jeremy Cunningham. He was very obviously a product of either Oxford or Cambridge, and it showed in everything he said, or did. He wore quite possibly the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen, and was also the most clumsy, awkward person too. To introduce himself to the school, he played an acoustic guitar in assembly and sang. It must have taken some guts, because he wasn’t very good. When he finished, he looked out at us all, sitting in rows, and said “Good morning everyone”. We obviously didn’t respond very volubly, so he repeated his greeting.

“Good MORNING everyone!”

Suddenly a single boy’s voice returned his greeting, shouting as loud and comically as possible:

“GOOD MORNING!”

There was a stunned silence, after which the gathering proceeded as-per-normal – with notices of things going on around the school, and so on. Finally the headmaster bade us farewell, and we all stood and prepared to leave.

Mr Bradley shouted at everybody to sit down again, then strode directly towards the boy that had shouted.

“STAND UP. NOW!”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more furious teacher, a more purple face, or a louder voice. We all sat with goggle eyes, unable to take our eyes off the dismantling happening right in front of us. The boy that had shouted was one of the popular kids – one of the kids that always seemed to get away with everything. Only this time he didn’t, and his stock sank like a stone. All of the formerly adoring girls watched as he burst into tears while the teacher ranted in his face – explaining to everybody that if you did anything in your life, don’t be like this guy.

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